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Expert Looks at Topics on Tap for Mideast Meeting

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Expert Looks at Topics on Tap for Mideast Meeting

Middle East

Expert Looks at Topics on Tap for Mideast Meeting

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The mood surrounding next week's Middle East Peace Conference in Annapolis improved a bit on Friday. Saudi Arabia finally said it will send its foreign minister to the talks. Saudi's support of the U.S.-sponsored talks is seen as critical to any effort to end the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, but the success of the talks is still far from guaranteed.

We're joined in the studio now by Dan Kurtzer who is the U.S. ambassador to Israel in President Bush's first administration. He's now a visiting professor at Princeton University and co-author of the book, "Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East." Ambassador, thanks very much for being with us.

Dr. DAN KURTZER (Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel; Professor, Middle East Policy Studies, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University): Thanks, Scott. It's good to be here.

SIMON: And, first, I think we have to ask the question of the day: Is Lebanon in any position to participate in these talks?

Dr. KURTZER: Probably not. They're in the midst of their own internal crisis. They certainly will have gotten an invitation, but I doubt very much that anybody will think seriously that they're going to participate.

SIMON: Mm. And what's the significance of the Saudis saying they're going to send someone?

Dr. KURTZER: Well, I think from the start, the idea was that what would make this meeting different would be the degree to which the administration could bring Arab support, and so it was important to persuade the Saudis that this was a serious activity. Their saying yes, I think, is a good sign for the administration that, at least, gets over this first hurdle.

SIMON: Well, that raises the question - there are people that say that, frankly, this administration needs the talks perhaps more when you never want to see the Middle East secondary when it comes to that because, certainly, a peaceful solution is desirous, but that this is mostly done for political reasons - domestic political reasons.

Dr. KURTZER: Well, the president needs to disprove that if, in fact, he is serious about this. This is an important issue for us to deal with. In its own right, it also carries with it benefits for our other diplomacy, and the president has to make sure that people don't think that this is a sideshow or some way of diverting attention from the problems in Iraq.

SIMON: Ambassador, based on your experience, what do you see is the three most difficult problems?

Dr. KURTZER: Well, there are - I call them the core four actually.

SIMON: Well defined.

Dr. KURTZER: The first is Jerusalem, where both sides have a very significant interest in the old city and in The Temple Mount, Harama Sharif.

Issue number two is the Palestinian refugees. The Palestinians claim a right to return to their homes that they left behind in 1947, '48; Israel says that the exercise of such a right would mean the end of the state of Israeli. It would be an inundation of a million or more Palestinians.

Third issue, of course, is security. For both sides this is critical: Israelis feel, for example, that their unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was greeted by a barrage of rockets, and Palestinians have not really enjoyed security for 75 years, and so how they work this out that both sides feel secure is critical.

And the fourth is the question of Israeli settlements. Israel would like to leave in place perhaps three quarters of the settlements and 80 percent of the settlers, and maybe prepare to swap some territory for it, but the question for Palestinians is will they get the quantity and quality of territory in return that would make such a swap possible?

SIMON: Mm-hmm. We've concentrated so much on the pitfalls and drawbacks. At the same time, are there reasons for this conference to succeed at this point or, more over, the Middle East peace process to make some progress now?

Dr. KURTZER: It's definitely an uphill battle, but I wouldn't be totally pessimistic. First of all, the very weakness of the two leaders in the region - Ehud Olmert in Israel and Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian authority - may actually work in favor of some success. They don't have an option but to succeed.

SIMON: Dan Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a visiting professor at Princeton, thanks very much.

Dr. KURTZER: Pleasure. Thank you.

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